Recently, Howard Gardner brought his theory of multiple intelligences to NYU. Mary Brabeck, Dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human development had the difficult task of succinctly introducing Dr. Gardner, embracing his many achievements. “When it comes to Howard Gardner, there is no briefly,” she said in offering an abbreviated list of accomplishments, such as his 1981 MacArthur fellowship and the holding of 20 honorary degrees.
A ninety-minute conversation ensued with colleague Marcelo Suárez-Orozco in which Dr. Gardner admitted that after his family fled Nazi Germany for Scranton, PA, his early life provided little intellectual stimulation. Of course, entrance to Harvard at 14 certainly gave him ample time to pursue a life of scholarship.
His groundbreaking work into Multiple Intelligences developed out of his own need to allot adequate space between his ideas and the work of others. “I tend to go where nobody else goes,” he says, which led to an understanding that normal brain activity could best be determined by studying the limited brain processes of stroke or aphasia patients.
Today, his theories are applied worldwide but it concerns him when institutions take a superficial approach to his work. I hope “they dig deeper to enrich and deepen their own thinking,” he stated, thus providing multiple entry points to important subjects that align themselves to each student’s intelligences. “My theories might not have been uncontroversially accepted if I called these capacities or intelligences ‘talents’. Everyone accepts that there exist specific talents—for chess, music, trapeze etc. By using the word ‘intelligence’ I caught attention, provoked controversy, and perhaps changed the conversation in education, if not in psychology.”
So an institution that plasters his name all about means little in comparison to engendering the ingenuity that his work aspires to. The Danfoss Universe in Denmark not only qualifies in its efforts to develop children’s insights into science and technology, but the experience park has him as an active member on their board. “They develop all kinds of games that make use of the separate intelligences,” he says, and a game called Explorarama came directly from Dr. Gardner’s input.
Halfway around the world, China clings to his theory as enthusiastically as they are pursuing globalization. Visiting in 2004, he found there are over 100 books expanding on his work, and he was greeted at a conference with over 2,500 papers on Multiple Intelligences.
In the recollections of one attendee, Dr. Gardner encompassed how the Chinese differ in their approach from the perceived Americans version, which seeks to identify strengths and defer on the weaknesses. “In China, it’s just eight things that we have to make our children good at,” he conveyed lightheartedly.
As to be expected, MI hasn’t caught on everywhere. In England and France, where general intelligence theory first developed, scholarship is mostly stuck in its ways, while Japan’s educational mindset lags behind along with its lack of individual psychological profiles.
Of course, here we have yet to dispense of the SAT’s or even the time constraints that add little to the assessment of a student’s intelligence. “Teachers care about the quality of the work not whether it was completed in the allotted time,” he says he wrote in a New York Times Op-ed piece.
To that came quite an array of responses but no more vocally than from one particular group. As if to prove his thesis, he said, “These middle aged males disagreed violently because they seem to have performed better on the SAT than they had in life."
Regardless, even though the sun never sets on a theory that has no limits, according to Professor Suárez-Orozco, Dr. Gardner thinks it wasteful to stay stuck on the same course.
“The Good Works” project arose as he and fellow colleagues realized that ethics were not moving at anything close to revolutionary speed. In his book, “Making Good,” he found young people aspired to ethics, but at some later date after they achieved comfort and standing. “Someday when we’re rich and famous we’ll be ethical but peers who cut corners will beat us to the top,” they averred, according to Dr. Gardner.
As for the corners that could apply to him, he doesn’t shy away from a future that could put all he’s worked for to the test. Asked from the audience what MRI technology could mean to his theories, he said, “I monitor these studies and it will be interesting to see if my original taxonomy will stand up to the scrutiny.”